“You can’t understand Kenya without trying nyama choma.” (The literal translation for that Swahili phrase is “charred flesh.”)
I heard this, or something strikingly similar, at least 14 times as I traveled across the country. But with only a few days left on my itinerary, I still hadn’t managed to try grilled goat meat. (Frankly, most visitors to Kenya miss out on nyama choma. It’s hard finding street vendors while out in the bush on safari.)
So, still striving to understand this complex nation, I decided that I wanted to spend my last 72 hours in one of its cities.
I asked Twitter, but results were mixed.
So I went to both.
> MOMBASA <
Of Kenya’s two biggest cities, Mombasa has the history. A couple thousand years’ worth, some say. Not everyone has had glowing reviews, however. For one, Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer who stopped by in the 14th century, complained about all the monkey attacks.
I see no monkeys as I join the line filing off the ferry from Mtongwe. Instead, it’s buses and tuk-tuks. One tuk-tuk driver spots me (potentially the lone foreigner in the crowd) and leads me to his three-wheeled motorized rickshaw. We zoom off into traffic. Horns honk and smoky motors chug as open-front shops selling spices, clothes, and books whiz past.
This is certainly no safari.
It’s easy to get lost in Old Town’s snaking streets, and I quickly do. I pass napping cats and puddles of water left over from a morning shower as kids play and men sit on steps. I stop to shoot some video of a lane filled with vegetable stands when a robed man walks into the frame. When I put down my phone as a gesture of respect, he protests. “No, no, no, it’s OK. Please, take photos.”
I hear about a fort built by the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century to repel enemy raids. My interest is piqued, mostly because of its name: Fort Jesus. The walled labyrinth, a UNESCO World Heritage site, looks like a person when viewed from above. Inside, I explore ramparts and towers and crumbled gates that mark the fort’s past incarnations (control of the fort changed hands many times as colonial powers battled over Kenya). Information is scarce. I pass on the many fort tour offers I receive, content to leave the explanation for its name to my own imagination.
Outside, I sit near a dirt soccer field in the shade overlooking the sea. Below me, couples take turns wading into the blue water for photos. Soon I meet a 20-year-old student and writer named Lawrence who’s on break from a tech school in Nairobi. We talk about Kenya, about writing, about education, about the differences between Mombasa and Nairobi. When I tell him I’m going to Nairobi, he—this being Kenya and Lawrence being Kenyan—tells me about this nyama choma place I just have to try.
> NAIROBI <
Many travelers to Kenya treat East Africa’s largest city as an unavoidable gateway: a hectic home to more than three million souls clogged with traffic and construction projects that must be tolerated en route to their intended destination. But despite its reputation, I feel confident that I can find something to like about Nairobi.
Built in the highlands just over a century ago along the rail link to the sea and Mombasa, Nairobi’s refreshingly cooler than anywhere else I go in Kenya.
It has its own national park, with rhinos and cheetahs.
It also has Karen.
The suburb, which faces the Ngong Hills to the northwest of Nairobi and can be reached from airports without drawing visitors into snarling city-center traffic, is a popular base for travelers. The explanation for the name seems clear this time: The farm of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), author of Out of Africa, once stood here.
I settle in at Wildebeest Eco Camp, safari-style accommodations that appeal to backpackers and mid-range travelers. The nearest bus stop is a couple of miles away, so I hire a cab to get around.
Our first stop: the Giraffe Centre, home to the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes. I see several walk by tall silver oaks toward a raised deck where visitors can pet or feed them. I pet one called “Jock 5.” He seems nice. A guide assures me that they are very gentle, but warns against getting too close.
“Their kick can kill a lion.”
I feel compelled to see Karen Blixen’s former home, at her 4,000-acre coffee farm that inspired her 1937 memoir. A palm Blixen planted still stands next to the century-old single-floor house she once lived in. Though her book isn’t my favorite ode to Kenya, I enjoy my visit. The tour gets particularly interesting when my young guide, Duncan, goes off script.
I’m hungry after the tour, so I invite my driver to join me for my first nyama choma experience in the nearby Ongata Rongai settlement.
City traffic feels far away as we cruise down leafy country lanes and pull into Rongai. Men dust off sofas for sale beside dusty streets. We can’t find the place Lawrence had told me about back in Mombasa, so we stop at a gas station to ask for directions. The attendant can’t help, but offers another recommendation. On a side road filled with nondescript gray buildings, we find our target: a butcher shop that doubles as a nightclub.
Slabs of goat meat hang in the window. Inside, excised organs lie on the counter as flies circle. In the back, a young man pulls out fresh ribs from the oven for us to inspect. They look great.
My driver and I head through a back door into the nightclub area, where tables sit beneath translucent plastic corrugated roof panels that let in the sun. A few diners are here, too, chomping ribs and watching a televised track meet. I must admit it’s not the most atmospheric restaurant I’ve been to.
That changes when the choma comes.
A heaping plate of ribs is placed before us, served with ugali, a sort of clumpy, heavy polenta that’s virtually an institution in Kenya, and kachumbari, a relish made from tomato, onion, and avocado.
I don’t know where or how to begin, but my lunchmate is eager to demonstrate. He feasts without acknowledging my presence. His lips literally smack as he pulls off the meat with his teeth and leaves little polished bones on his plate.
I try to follow his lead, and discover a delicious combination of flavors I can’t help but savor. Soon my companion breaks the silence.
“The first taste tells you where it’s from,” he says. “And this is from the village.” That means, he goes on to say, no chemicals. “Very nice choma, very nice,” he says.
So, what’s best, Nairobi or Mombasa?
I don’t know. I liked seeing both.
As long as you go for the choma.